For "the dips," as British envoys call the striped-pants crowd, embassy life in Washington can be busy, surging with high-level diplomatic currents toward major policy connections.

Or it can be essentially a public relations office coping with the flood of mail received by all embassies, a gilded exile for relatively impotent ambassadors whose heads of government do all of the important U.S. business in the home capital.

"The Turks do a lot of business here; so do the Russians, the Greeks less so," a State Department official said. A U.S. diplomat who served in Moscow confirmed that, saying, "We had virtually nothing to do. Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin was doing everything in Washington."

Greek President Andreas Papandreou "really is his own foreign minister," according to one Greek embassy official, and that keeps Greece's ambassador on a relatively short leash. Papandreou has sent at least two political cronies here and often takes their word over that of his ambassador, according to several sources.

Other ambassadors on short leashes may include influential enemies of the head of state, those who have contributed heavily or useless relatives sent here to keep them happy and away from home.

The 23 Turks at the Washington embassy, however, are all career diplomats in a tradition of 500 years. When the current military government took power in a 1980 coup, only six diplomats were recalled worldwide. U.S. Ambassador Sukru Elekdag, like many diplomats here when their governments fall at home, is adroit at changing horses.

"Everything is so much easier now. Whatever I could say before was insufficient to defend the situation . . . . My job was like putting makeup on a cadaver," he said.

Elekdag, 59, has been trusted by his employers past and present. The son of a barber in an Istanbul suburb, he helped finance his college education by boxing and three times was Istanbul heavyweight champion. He studied rather than go to Ankara for the national title bouts, "but the ones I used to beat up went on to be the champions," he recalled.

He is still formidable. Barred by Turkish foreign service rules from marrying a foreigner while an officer, he lived with his current wife, German-born Ayla, for several years until he became the second-ranking person at the foreign ministry in 1974, whereupon he changed the rule and married her.

"Elekdag has one speed, and that is full speed ahead," a high-ranking administration official said, "but he and Yalem together make a very effective team."

Yalem Eralp, 43, deputy chief of the Turkish mission, is Elekdag's right hand, the Turk most known to congressional staffers, U.S. lobbyists and businessmen and desk officers at the State and Defense departments. He tells them informally what the government in Ankara wants, what it is prepared to do; he most often calls and visits, briefs reporters, explains policies. He is Turkey's chief executive officer here, the man to see.

Every embassy has its own de facto chief below the ambassador, with his or her work a mixture of the tedious, the nerve-wracking and the funny, laced with frustration. It was Eralp, for example, who sat through several recent congressional hearings on military aid to Turkey and Greece, taking copious notes on members' complaints so Elekdag could address them later in phone calls and visits.

He also briefed a group of U.S. military officers from the National War College before they left on a visit to Turkey, Italy and Greece, part of a 10-month advanced officers' training course. Yes, they can jog in Ankara, he told them in the embassy's plush red-and-gold reception room, "but be careful where . . . and with the smoke from coal stoves in the winter, you may not want even to walk."

With his dry humor, fluent English and relaxed, offhand manner, Eralp receives high marks from the diplomatic community--even from Greeks, the Turks' main adversaries, and from some congressional staff members who oppose most of Turkey's goals. "The quality of the people is crucial to a country's success on the Hill," one said.

All of them, after all, must get along at cocktail parties.

Every weekday includes a business lunch "or a dinner or a tour or a slide show or a big dinner for many people," Elekdag said. He hosts VIPs from Turkey and sees that they meet the right people. He visits newspaper editors, speaks to Turkish-American groups and hosts "national day" receptions.

A semi-professional jazz group led by information chief Murat Sungar on piano and political officer Ferip Erdin on guitar is in heavy demand at such events. The Greeks are among the guests, and everyone seems charming.

But the cocktail circuit, according to Sungar, is not nearly as important here as in many other countries because the United States has a free press.

"Especially in the socialist countries, the only way of getting information may be from your colleagues in other embassies. Then you really have to go to the cocktails," Sungar said.

Here, the problem is sifting through the mountain of information available "and figuring out what everybody else is using," he said. The flood of mail from ordinary folks is unique in the world, according to several envoys.

Greek information chief Luis Danos agreed, saying, "In Athens, nobody talks; all is rumor. Here, everybody talks, and you have to decide who is a reliable guide into the system. It is a more difficult capital than any other."

An ambassador here competes with 150 fellow ambassadors for attention from the State Department and the White House, "and they just don't have the manpower to pay attention to everybody's issues," Elekdag said.

Part of his job, therefore, he said, is keeping the administration up to date on the progress and perils of Turkey's interests, such as the foreign aid bill, and asking for help in time to get it. Relations with the Reagan administration, he said, are "very close."

As the representative of a NATO ally, Elekdag receives small courtesies from the U.S. military. He recently toured Strategic Air Command headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, Neb., and said he particularly enjoyed talking on a special radio-telephone with an airborne B52 pilot, he said.

He tested the base's instant communications links with Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands and Greenland. "I just asked them how was the weather," he said with a laugh.